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NMSU grad student, teacher rises to challenges, makes a difference in community

With hopes to wipe out the negative preconceptions that some students have toward people with disabilities, a New Mexico State University graduate with physical challenges has been teaching sixth-grade social studies at Zia Middle School in Las Cruces for the last three years.


Man standing outside with sash and robe over his shoulder
Carlos Avila in 2017 when he graduated with his bachelor's degree in elementary education. (Courtesy photo by Valeria Armendariz)
Head and shoulders of a man and woman
Carlos Avila and his mother Laura pose for a selfie. (Photo courtesy Carlos Avila)
Head and shoulders of a woman
Karen Krontz, who teaches with Carlos Avila. (Photo courtesy Karen Krontz)

Although Carlos Avila has diplegia cerebral palsy, which affects his lower extremities, making him walk differently, it didn’t stop him from completing his degree in elementary education at NMSU in 2017 and becoming a teacher in Las Cruces Public Schools.

“I am blessed to be a teacher,” Avila said. “Students see that we too are part of society. And my hope is that it shines a positive light on people with disabilities in my students’ eyes. We must be seen in all aspects of life to normalize our existence.”

In general, cerebral palsy is a condition that affects the brain motor system due to abnormal brain development or severe brain damage, according to the Center’s for Disease Control website. It can be caused during pregnancy, birth or after birth. The affected brain can’t control most of the body movement, coordination, balance and/or posture.

One diagnosis classification depends on the affected body part. Besides diplegia cerebral palsy, two other classifications are hemiplegia and quadriplegia, according the Cerebral Palsy Foundation website. Hemiplegia affects the leg, arm and hand on the same side of the body. Quadriplegia affects all extremities. The other classification is based on awkward body movement patterns.

A child is born with a type of cerebral palsy hourly. This condition is not curable, but all these diagnoses tend to improve or worsen as the affected individual gets older depending on how much therapy he/she does.

Although life gave Avila a difficult start, he has conquered each challenge not only to become a devoted teacher but also a National Educators Association (NEA) member in Las Cruces. According to its website, the NEA is an organization that ensures teachers are qualified, caring and committed to educating students with the best technique.

“The reason I chose teaching was because I’ve always been good with kids, and I’m really patient,” Avila said. “I have a passion for advocacy in advancing my profession, bringing autonomy and respect to educators, and helping transform, innovate and support our education system.”

Other teachers have noticed his work on behalf of students in the classroom.

“He relates to students and tries to include their interests,” fellow teacher Karen Krontz said. “He believes deeply in equitable education and advocates for his students more than any other teacher. He supports his school through leading parent engagement activities and NEA initiatives.”

For Avila, being a teacher with cerebral palsy requires more interaction with students. On the first day of school, he carefully tells them about the syllabus, classroom rules and drill procedures to the students but he also explains why he walks differently from others.

“Kids need to know that stuff,” Avila said. “It helps build that kind of relationship. I love being able to expose them to new things and new ideas. So, it’s been really beneficial because you don’t see a lot of teachers [who] have disabilities.”

Even when some students would not accept or understand, Avila saw these interactions as opportunities for his students to learn. “I think ultimately ‘few’ students can still dehumanize me because of my disability,” he said. “In fact, some have. But those moments, although upsetting and hurtful, are still teachable moments. It is that rapport and essence of respect that really helps shift mindsets.”

Becoming a teacher hasn’t been easy for Avila. He admits prejudgment situations and stares still exist. When Avila was teaching first grade, a friend of his mother’s, who was in the school’s office one time, couldn’t believe he was a teacher.

“I think she said, ‘Oh, like the real teacher?’” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, the real teacher.’ So, the secretary [jumped] in, and she’s like, ‘Yes, Mr. Avila.’ And I said, ‘Yes, thank you.’” His mother’s friend told him she felt guilty after questioning him about his profession.

That interaction made him realize that people often are not used to seeing individuals with different abilities having professions. In his experience, Avila said many people seem unaware that they have prejudged someone who is different because they don’t really interact with them. He said they might make incorrect assumptions about disabled people without really knowing them.

“My profession and my advocacy allow me to bring a positive light to my disability and look beyond it,” he said. “Our disabilities should never define who we are. We are capable, we are able, and no person’s opinion should tear us down. Yes, their judgment could hurt us, but it should never stop us.”

Doctors diagnosed Avila with diplegia cerebral palsy at nine months after his mother, Laura Avila, noticed he couldn’t sit without support, or roll over and that he was cross-eyed. Doctors told her he wouldn’t be able to walk or talk.

“I was devastated but believed always that my son would be able to walk and talk,” she said. “I never thought I would have a son who had a disability. I had been recently widowed, and I was a teen mother.”

In spite of the doctor’s predictions, Avila did talk normally, but he does walk differently. He received therapy services at Core, a therapy facility in Las Cruces that is now closed.

“I am extremely thankful and proud of my son,” Laura Avila said. “He has beat many odds and proved people wrong.”

Avila says his mother has been a great support for him and his educational goals. He is currently enrolled in graduate school at NMSU, pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.

“I am proud because he is a teacher and still has decided to get a master’s degree,” she said. “He sets goals and conquers them.”